Why the Hillbilly Elegy Guy and Peter Thiel Are Backing a YouTube Clone for Republicans

J.D. Vance at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018.
J.D. Vance at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018.
Photo: Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch (Getty Images)

The Hillbilly Elegy guy and right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel are teaming up to invest big money in a conservative alternative to YouTube called Rumble, the Wall Street Journal reported last week. Why would these ghouls want a piece of one of the web’s junkiest services?

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Cincinnati-based Narya Capital, a firm co-founded by author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance and in which Thiel has invested, will give Rumble a publicly undisclosed sum that the Journal’s sources say is considerable and values the company at $500 million. As the paper noted, this is the first time Thiel has invested in a social media firm since he became an early investor in Facebook, where he is still a member of the board.

This is significant for a number of reasons, not the least because it’s a big financial injection into the push by conservatives who are frustrated by insufficient fealty from platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to set up their own alternate web destinations. The Republican Party has grown obsessed with the supposed censorship of conservatives by Silicon Valley elites in recent years, elevating the baseless assertion into one of its key issues, and Rumble has been happy to cater to that crowd by marketing itself as a GOP-friendly free speech site.

Here’s what is going on.

(Disclosure: Thiel secretly bankrolled a lawsuit that bankrupted Gizmodo’s former parent company, Gawker Media.)

What is Rumble?

Rumble is one of the many alternative platforms that have sprung up for aggrieved conservatives fleeing mainstream services operated by tech titans for a variety of reasons—some were banned on those original sites for breaking rules or fear they will be, while others may simply prefer existing entirely within a MAGA echo chamber. Then there are high-profile conservatives, always looking for the next GOP grift, who sense an opportunity to cash in on censorship panic among their supporters.

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In Rumble’s case, it’s specifically trying to compete with companies like YouTube and Vimeo, though its sparse layout and lack of features call to mind a prior decade of web design. One reason that might be the case is that Rumble, which launched in 2013, used to mostly serve as a clearinghouse for licensing viral videos, and its catalog largely consisted of home movies of babies and animals interposed with a smattering of local news clips. This all changed when Representative Devin Nunes, who has long claimed to be facing Orwellian censorship from Facebook, Twitter, and Google, began uploading his videos there in the summer of 2020. A number of other conservatives followed suit, and CEO Chris Pavlovski saw an opportunity to market directly to a large and potentially untapped audience of angry right-wingers.

By September 2020, Rumble was attracting serious attention from extremely online conservatives like pundit Dan Bongino, who used to scream about guns on a now-defunct NRA TV channel and is the owner of a massive network of Facebook pages. Bongino bought an equity stake in Rumble that month and—curiously enough!—began leveraging his social media accounts on other sites to warn conservatives to join sites like Rumble before it was too late. Rumble wasn’t his only investment. Bongino had bought what he said was an “ownership stake” in conservative Twitter clone Parler in June 2020, which he similarly promoted. That business relationship has since become mired in infighting and the focus of Congressional investigators after numerous users were implicated in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots.

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What’s the current state of Rumble?

In late 2020, Republican posturing over social media censorship was reaching a fever pitch that only grew after Trump lost the elections, and by January 2021, banned from Facebook and Twitter after inciting that deadly riot at the Capitol in a last-ditch effort to stop Joe Biden from becoming president. Amid a mad dash to catch a rush of conservatives claiming they were abandoning those sites and others in response, Rumble and its contributors cashed in big time. According to Wired, Similarweb data showed that monthly visits to Rumble skyrocketed from 5 million in September 2020 to 135 million by January 2021. Similarweb shows that traffic has since declined but remained at a respectable 81 million in April 2021. These numbers, like most web traffic data, are somewhat hazy and may not reflect the full reach of Rumble’s content when it is embedded on other sites.

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Rumble is now infested with Republican-baiting content like Bongino’s podcast, sophomoric YouTube bigot Steven Crowder’s show, reaction vids from Donald Trump Jr., and the “Devin Nunes Press,” whatever that is. Much of it is re-uploads from other sites—and a lot of it is just clips from networks like CNN or C-SPAN reposted alongside angry captions. Then there are networks of conspiracy theorists and disinformation artists on the site, ranging from 2020 election truthers and QAnon revanchists to antivaxxers. It’s a hellhole, to put it nicely.

It’s important to understand that a massive slice of Rumble’s viewership is clicking in from links shared on the very same platforms that conservatives claim are censoring them, like Facebook. And in some ways, this might dovetail nicely with the viral non-politics footage still being licensed through the site, as perhaps the same kind of older adult who uncritically hits share on every piece of right-wing clickbait they encounter might be spamming cute babies too.

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So why are J.D. Vance and Peter Thiel interested?

Vance is best known for his book Hillbilly Elegy, which was once praised by some liberal talking heads as providing a sort of Trump safari into the minds of a semi-mythical brand of working-class conservatives. It has since aged poorly. But he’s also a venture capitalist with longstanding ties to Thiel who served as a principal at the billionaire’s VC firm, Mithril Capital, and has launched his own fund in Ohio, Narya Capital, backed by Thiel funds.

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Now that Vance is gearing up for a potential Senate run in Ohio, he’s abandoned the pretense of being a Trump whisperer for well-heeled urban elites and has dove headfirst into the kind of culture war conservativism the GOP’s base laps up like dog chow. As Politico noted, though Vance regularly deletes his tweets, he appears to have stopped tweeting anti-Trump sentiments years ago and is now laser-focused on doing his best Tucker Carlson impersonation, which isn’t very good. He’s sent out bizarre rants on how universal child care is a “massive subsidy to the lifestyle preferences of the affluent over the preferences of the middle and working class,” claimed the Facebook Oversight Board has more power than the entire United Nations, and just this week angrily posted about seeing “a group of girls on the Potomac rowing” while wearing masks.

This might seem rather cringeworthy, but on another level, Vance’s willingness to repeatedly embarrass himself in spectacular fashion online is also raising his profile with controversy-hungry Trump supporters that spend all day yelling into the aether on Facebook and Twitter. Obviously, he’s made social media censorship one of his biggest issues. So, if nothing else, Narya Capital’s Rumble investment is a nice little confluence, providing yet another perch from which to denounce oppressive Silicon Valley liberals as part of his Senate ambitions while simultaneously poising himself to cash in on it.

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Thiel is himself a libertarian turned culture-war conservative notorious for his extensive ties to the far right and who similarly touts phantom bias against conservatives in the tech world as strangling innovation and free speech (that’s rich). He has backed a pro-Vance political action committee to the tune of $10 million, according to Recode, giving Vance an early advantage in the Republican primary race to replace retiring Senator Rob Portman if he chooses to run.

According to the Journal, Narya Capital co-founder Colin Greenspon said that the firm was attracted to Rumble because it promises to expand beyond simply hosting videos and build an alternate internet infrastructure for those distrustful of Silicon Valley firms, such as cloud services. That’s an obvious selling point for Thiel, a longtime backer of conservatives in the tech industry divorcing themselves of liberal groupthink who left Silicon Valley for Los Angeles in 2018, and who may view that project as particularly useful in shaping the future of Republican ideology.

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“The growth of Rumble has created a vehicle for us to start offering cloud solutions to businesses,” Pavlovski, the Rumble CEO, told the Journal. “This will be a major play against Big Tech.”

Tom covers tech, politics, online extremism, and oddities for Gizmodo. His work has appeared on Mic, Yahoo News, AOL, HuffPo, Business Insider, Snoop Dogg's Merry Jane, Wonkette and The Daily Banter.

DISCUSSION

asmallcat
asmallcat

Because the sort of people who are dumb enough to want “republican youtube” are also those who are dumb enough to not know how to block ads and dumb enough to fall for MLM’s and other shitty companies that will advertise on there, so it’s free $$$.